Seinfeld nation

The front page of Wednesday’s Independent is devoted to a story that chronicles the collapse of public and private morality in Britain.

The story entitled “Britain facing boom in dishonesty …”  reports that according to a study by the University of Essex, the British are:

becoming less honest and their trust in government and business leaders has fallen to a new low amid fears that the nation is heading for an “integrity crisis”.

Lying, having an affair, driving while drunk, having underage sex and buying stolen goods are all more acceptable than they were a decade ago. But people are less tolerant of benefits fraud.

The Independent summarizes the results of a study carried out by the University of Essex’s Centre for the Study of Integrity and suggests the “integrity problem” will get worse as the young are more tolerant of dishonesty than the old.

The article cites statistics illustrating the decline in trust in government and in falling moral standards and concludes with a warning from the study’s author that this collapse in civic and private virtue will have political consequences. The study’s author stated:

integrity levels mattered because there was a link between them and a sense of civic duty. If integrity continues to decline, he thinks it will be difficult to mobilise volunteers to support David Cameron’s Big Society project.”If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial,” Professor Whiteley said. “It really does have a profound effect.”

The Independent put some effort into this story — front page coverage, man in the street interviews, trumpeting the story as an exclusive and advance look. Overall, they do a pretty good job — well written, thoughtful interviews and comments, strong insight into the consequences of the findings.

But … no mention of religion or faith in this story. It may well have been the Essex study did not include religion as one of the strands of civic virtue, but even so that would have been worth a mention. The reader is confronted with the assumption that religion is irrelevant to morality.

I would contrast this story with the prime minister’s recent speech on virtue.  Remember when Tony Blair’s press secretary famously said “We don’t do God”, even though Mr Blair was known to be a believer. Nine years later the current prime minister, David Cameron — whose public utterances about his personal faith have been less rigorous than Mr. Blair — did not find himself similarly constrained.

At celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible, Mr Cameron affirmed the centrality of the Christian faith in forming a tolerant civic society. Tolerance was not a product of secularism, he argued.

Moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore. … Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles.”

These social observations flow naturally from a speech marking the KJV, the prime minister said, because:

The Bible is a book that has not just shaped our country, but shaped the world. And with three Bibles sold or given away every second… a book that is not just important in understanding our past, but which will continue to have a profound impact in shaping our collective future.”

The Bible permeates “every aspect” British culture, language, literature, music, art, politics, rights, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy and welfare provisions, Mr. Cameron said, adding that:

We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.

While he was not addressing the crisis of public and private morality in Britain, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 21 January 2012, Charles Murphy described a similar disease afflicting America. In his article “The New American Divide”

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

For Murray, religion is a component of the common civic culture and its decline a mark of the collapse of civic virtue.

Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that [working class] Fishtown has become much more secular than [bourgeois] Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

The bottom line … the Independent article presents a classic example of a religion ghost in a secular news story. The topic under review — public and private morality — is inherently connected with religion, yet no word about religion appears in the story.

Should the Independent have noted the absence of religion in the public morality report? Is religious belief intrinsic to morality? Can the two be separated? Given Prime Minister David Cameron’s widely publicized December speech about Christian Britain — how could the Independent not touch upon religion in its report on collapsing public and private morals.

Or, have we reach the point where Britain become a Seinfeld nation? Where it is no longer news that the majority can now affirm with George Costanza. “Jerry … It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

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  • James

    Proving my theory once again that all of life comes back to a scene on either Seinfeld or King of the Hill.

    “Should the Independent have noted the absence of religion in the public morality report?”

    Absolutely, they should have, and especially considering the ongoing debate of religion, atheism, and the public’s morality that has been of so much discussion the past several years in Britain.

  • Jerry

    I typed in to google effect of religion on behavior and found many links. So the ghost has loud chains and the rattling should be heard by anyone with ears. Any reporter worth his or her salt should be able to write a story that at least seriously raises the question. Also, there are a lot of references to religion and ethics if you prefer that question.

  • Stan

    “The reader is confronted with the assumption that religion is irrelevant to morality.”

    It seems to me that many people now believe that religion is in many instances antithetical to morality. So many self-professed religious people routinely lie and often commit the very forms of “immorality” that they condemn that most people do not connect religion with morality. That is likely why the University of Exeter study omitted religion as a predictor of morality.

    More debatable is the assertion by David Cameron that religion is crucial to promoting tolerance in society. I don’t think that has been true historically, for often intolerance is actively promoted by many religious people and officials (notwithstanding the fact that some other religious people do in fact promote religion).

    I don’t quite understand the journalistic critique here: do you think the journalist should have questioned and editorialized upon the Exeter study rather than reporting it?

    Nor do I quite see the point of your question regarding Britain being a “Seinfeld nation”: “Or, have we reached the point where Britain become a Seinfeld nation? Where it is no longer news that the majority can now affirm with George Costanza. “Jerry … It’s not a lie, if you believe it.””

    The Costanza quote seems to me to be much more pertinent to religious figures. We no longer expect religious figures to tell the truth. Indeed, we expect that they think that they can indeed lie because the believe “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

    I think that a useful study would examine how it has come to the point that people are so distrustful of religious people? I don’t think it is because of a war on religion but because of the activity of religious people in the culture wars, which has revealed a great deal about them.

  • Charles Specht

    I both love Seinfeld and dislike Seinfeld. I certainly can’t say I hate the show, because I’ve laughed too many times. But I also know I’ve had to turn it off quite often because it was crass.

  • Julia

    If you believe that what you say is true, how is it a lie?

  • carl jacobs

    Since religion is essentially invisible in the UK, why should anyone be surprised when it doesn’t show up in a news report in a British newspaper? The journalist doesn’t see it. The audience will not notice its absence. They might even be irritated by the suggestion that religion has anything to do with moral behavior. There might be a ghost in this story but it wanders alone through the halls of a deserted church building. There is no one around to hear its footsteps in the night.

    What they could talk about, however, is the impact of evolutionary thinking on moral reasoning. Randomness cannot produce normative boundaries. A self-interested mechanism inevitably produces self-interested behavior. Why not lie if it’s in my self-interest to do so? Why not cheat? Why not deceive? Who will call me to account if I am never found out? If this life is all I have, then why should I deny myself for the sake of arbitrary boundaries? Who will reward me for virtue? Who will condemn me for vice?

    That’s the connection that needs to be explored. That’s a religious ghost walking the streets with the crowd. But its a ghost of the religion called ‘secularism.’


  • Chris

    You will not get the secularist (is that even a word?) to see the religious ghost any more than you can convince the believer to not see God’s presence in creation. (Did I just do a double negative.)

    I’m not British so I don’t know but I wonder if the average English man in the street sees religion the same way they see the Queen: a quant relic from a less enlightened time.

  • Kris D

    This article is interesting when compared with the rise of Christianity in China, Russia, & Africa as something that counteracts corruption: Historian Will Durant saw the rise of Methodism in England as a reaction to the corruption found in the Church of England in the 18th century.